Mind Your NGOs
Karen Rothmyer’s article, “Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news” (CJR, March/April), says many things right and long overdue. People who have lived in Africa for many years and have experience with NGOs tend to agree with Rothmyer’s views. Many thanks to Rothmyer and CJR for helping to broaden the dialogue.
Victor de la Torre Sans
Advocacy and Projects’ Director
Africa Siglo 21
Sincere thanks to Karen Rothmyer for her piece, “Hiding the Real Africa.” As a veteran communicator for a large NGO, I agree that NGOs feed that “media beast” when they respond to large disasters and other sources of bad news. I’m circulating the piece amongst the growing number of concerned insiders in our organization, which, hopefully, will lead to some change.
Yes, the US media insufficiently covers good news about development in Africa, but the positive regional numbers on poverty, health, and economic growth cited by Rothmyer conceal terrible inequities. In too many African countries, statistics on health outcomes, if they are reported, can still shock the conscience. Time’s June 2010 photo story on maternal death in Sierra Leone sheds some light on a rarely reported truth: a pregnant reader in the US is forty times more likely to survive pregnancy than her counterpart in Sierra Leone, where one woman in twenty-one will lose her life to complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
Health advocates try to raise attention to these issues, and struggle to present a balanced picture. The most recent report from Countdown to 2015—a global effort to track progress in reducing maternal and child deaths, whose participants prominently include NGOs and UN agencies—began like this: “The Countdown report for 2010 contains good news—many countries are making progress, reducing mortality and increasing coverage of effective health interventions at an accelerating pace. But the news is not all good.” This is hardly “poverty porn.”
Africa is anything but “a continent of unending horrors,” and NGOs and aid groups are eager to provide reporters with stories of empowerment and progress. But an African woman dies every two minutes from pregnancy-related causes, and nearly every one of these deaths is preventable. This is no stereotype; it is a simple, tragic, and infuriating fact.
Communications director, Family Care International
New York, N.Y.
Laurel to CJR for stunning coverage by Abigail Deutsch of the reissue of Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking. Mitford has too often been underestimated by the journalism establishment as one of our most effective muckrakers. Ethics may not have been one of her strong points, but results surely were. I used her Poison Penmanship as a required text in my journalism classes at Sonoma State University in California and my students appreciated her tips for investigative journalism.
The March/April issue’s Darts and Laurels column stated that Randy Billings of The Forecaster broke the story about the Portland Press Herald’s donation of ad space during a political campaign. In fact, Al Diamon of DownEast.com and Jeff Inglis of The Portland Phoenix had both written about it several days earlier on their respective blogs. We regret the error.